Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process

Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk and reading by much-loved author Pam Houston and then took her writing workshop the next day.

I came away inspired, with her latest memoir, Deep Creek, under my arm, and new tools to use and teach, but I was also troubled.

Houston is an engaging storyteller, a riveting writer, and a warm, vulnerable human being. I’m thoroughly enjoying Deep Creek, which tells remarkable stories of her 26-years on a high-mountain ranch in Colorado, of her often-harrowing childhood, and how she holds onto hope while loving this Earth and watching so much of it die.

Houston’s prime creative technique

In her writing workshop, Houston shared with us the method she used to write Deep Creek and all of her books. It is a technique that is adaptable to many art forms, and there is much to be learned from it about creative process.

Houston collects what she calls glimmers from her life, moments that capture her attention, details from the physical world that brought up some resonance in her.

A glimmer might be a conversation she overheard or the experience of painting the UV protector on the logs of her cabin. It might be a mother hitting her child in the supermarket or seeing 300 elk cross her land in the snow or the time her father was so drunk, he rolled the car and the police had to cut her out of the passenger seat with a chainsaw.

Or, as she shared, a glimmer might be the centerpiece at a cocktail party that she couldn’t take her eyes off and didn’t know why, until much later she realized the bottle of vodka frozen in a mound of ice and surrounded by roses was a perfect metaphor for her mother.

She writes these glimmers down on her computer, describing the scenes in vivid sensory detail and eschewing, as much as possible, any commentary on the meaning of the events. In other words, she practices the time-honored creative writing maxim “Show don’t tell.”

Making a collage of moments

Later, she begins piecing together various glimmers that she intuitively senses belong together. In the process, she avoids the logical mind or trying to figure out or explain what the glimmers mean or why they belong together. Rather she approaches the process like collage, trusting her instincts and trusting her reader to draw connections to seemingly disparate events that may be far apart in time.

If she comes to a place in the writing where she needs a particular type of glimmer, she’ll do a word search on her computer for “ice” or “mother” or “inadequacy” or whatever it is she feels might fit with what she’s working on.

She lets the glimmers play off of and illuminate one another in surprising and interesting ways.

Giving the work a shape

For a book-length work, Houston chooses a form as a way to bring structure and coherence to her intuitive creative process.

For Deep Creek, the form she chose was a 12-sided Rubik’s cube.

The book is in 12 sections divided by short “Ranch Almanac” entries that follow the seasons in order. Each section, like the side of a Rubik’s cube, is made up of multiple glimmers pieced together like a quilt.

The glimmers are not chronological, but jump from her childhood to various points in her life to tales of ranch life. The pairings have intuitive, emotional resonance and also provide welcome contrasts and variety in the narrative.

Sensory detail for empaths and dreamers

Specific sensory details of smell, sound, taste, touch, sight, when vividly described, are what bring writing alive and draw the reader into a piece. They are a vital part of the art and craft of writing. Houston stressed this point in her workshop.

I know this. I teach this. But, as someone who experiences life through my inner experience, my feelings and intuitions, as someone who has always found the imaginal world and the unseen world, the world of spirits and dreams, to be more real and vibrant than the physical world, I struggle mightily with this in my writing.

So I practice. I practice waking up to the sensory world, noticing, paying attention, and describing. And it’s hard work for me.

As artists, we need to practice to strengthen our weaknesses, especially when those weak areas are vital to our art form. We need to keep learning and growing and expanding our capacities and our palette of possibilities.

But we also want to keep the process feeling good and build on our unique strengths. In this way, we find our unique voice and will keep wanting to return to our art. And our joy in making will infuse our art.

So, when I get tired or discouraged from practicing describing the physical world, I go back to my strengths as a writer. I describe my interior landscape. I practice capturing the ineffable. I let myself muse on the philosophical. I make unusual, musical pairings of words, summon beauty and wonder with language, create a kind of word magic, spell-casting.

What troubled me

What troubled me in Pam Houston’s workshop was not her methods, which were fascinating and useful. And noteworthy too because, if you study the methods of writers as I have, you will find an astonishing variety of approaches. There is no one right way to write a story, poem, essay or book.

What bothered me was that she emphasized what hard work writing is, how painful it is. She even said, if it isn’t painful, you aren’t doing it right.

I understand that she was pointing to being willing to delve into what’s uncomfortable and vulnerable and to bring that to the page. I agree this is important.

I understand, too, the importance of revising one’s work over and over to make it the best it can be, and how hard that process of revision can be at times, though I love revising.

The missing piece

But, I make my living teaching writers and artists of all kinds how to have more ease, grace and wonder in the process of creation, to step into that inspired state known as flow, and to enjoy it!

I get so tired of how writers, in particular, love to complain about how hard and painful it is to write.

Do dancers and musicians do this too? I haven’t heard it nearly as much in those realms. More often, I hear musicians and dancers talk about our love of the art form, our love of doing it. Why should it be any different for writers?

Yes, parts of the creative process are incredibly hard. They require us to stretch, to meet our fears, our doubts, our pain and insecurity, to be vulnerable and risk, to work hard to get something right that isn’t coming out.

At times, we meet disappointments and rejections. We come up against our own maddening limitations again and again.

But that isn’t the whole process.

Remember the joy and play

I left Pam Houston’s workshop wondering why writers have this habit of complaining about how hard writing is. I think part of it is because the dominant culture values work, not play. If we make it sound like hard work—and it is that too—then we can validate it.

Writing—all creating—is a tremendous gift. It is sacred play. We are blessed to be able to do it. Let’s not forget that, why we came to it in the first place.

You don’t see young children who are given paint and paper, agonizing over their work. They are at play, in delight, creating, exploring, experimenting. To me, that is the heart of art-making, the way it is meant to be.

And although there are days we sweat and bleed and gnash our teeth over it, we can love and enjoy the process overall. We can learn how to preserve the innate wonder and joy, surprise and magic that is creating.

That is my prayer for you.

To your joyful creative life,

Maxima

6 Comments

  1. Loraine Webb Author February 19, 2020 (2:58 am)

    I love this blog Max. And I love you. And I even love the word “blog.” Your workshops are always so full of serious informative play, and what a gift they are. It does seem as though painters think they need to suffer endlessly, too.. cold lonesome garrets, etc. But then, they have to buy expensive paints & canvas, poor dears. I mean.. writers just gotta get some ol scrap paper, a discarded nub of something.. & write! Right?

    • Maxima Kahn Author February 19, 2020 (8:59 pm)

      Thank you, dear Loraine! So good to hear. Yes!

  2. Pamela Jay Author February 19, 2020 (11:37 pm)

    Kudos! Beautiful, Maxima! The struggling artist/writer syndrome has always seemed so odd to me, too. As a recording artist, writer and teacher committed to fostering ease, good health and joy through creative expression, I always tell my students: “Argue for your limitations, and they are yours”.

    • Maxima Kahn Author February 19, 2020 (11:42 pm)

      Thanks so much for commenting, Pamela. This is great to hear.

  3. Harry Brooks Author February 20, 2020 (1:22 pm)

    Thank you for writing this article Maxima, I loved reading it, and it’s a very timely reminder for me. Writing really is a gift, one that we fully participate in, one that can teach us much about life, one that can be healing in so many ways. It deserves space and stillness, sometimes hard work, and yes, more play.

    • Maxima Kahn Author February 20, 2020 (7:45 pm)

      Thank you, Harry. So good to hear. And yes, to what you write here!

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